On Politics, Sexual Assault, and the Microcosm of the College Campus


I must confess myself tired. I think we are all tired – tired of our divisive political climate, this election (please enjoy the satire in the link), and the ugly rhetorical war that has ensued. However, as much as we might wish it, this frenetic trainwreck doesn’t end in November. To state the painfully obvious, American politics has completed its descent into a salmagundi of the ludicrous, scandalous, and disruptive.

The recent slew of sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump ensures that we will only become more fatigued and estranged from one another. To be clear, this is not another article to denounce Donald Trump as unfit to be president; while I do wholeheartedly believe that, my goal is not to attack you if you support Trump. Rather, as a survivor of sexual assault and someone who has struggled with the mental ramifications of trauma, I find it imperative to discuss sexual assault at Penn in the context of our political environment.

Last year’s Association of American Universities’ campus survey revealed 1 in 4 of Penn’s women had experienced sexual assault. While the survey did have some issues with participation rate, the findings are still compelling and demonstrate that sexual assault is a widespread issue. So how do we address sexual assault on our own campus and deconstruct rape culture, particularly at a time of such “political polarization”?

Note: If you are unfamiliar with rape culture as a concept, here is a decent explainer from Southern Connecticut State University (though it possesses a stale heteronormativity). But to give you the cliffnotes, it’s the idea that sexual violence is normalized in culture through media, jokes, and casual comments. These normalizations are usually characterized by blaming the victim for their own assault or presenting assault as a non-issue.

Sexual assault can be an extremely divisive topic with issues ranging from the use of trigger warnings to the politicization of the female body to the legal frameworks responsible for miscarriages of justice. There are also those who doubt whether rape culture even exists or would argue that sexual assault is not as widespread as the social left would ask us to believe. Navigating these conversations can be difficult at the best of times, and now – as we all hold our breath and wait for this never-ending election to be over – it appears to be the worst of times.

We all have a tendency to actively dismiss those with whom we disagree, to wall up when we feel attacked, and to approach so-called “discourse” with our minds made up before we begin. We have all entangled ourselves in utterly futile conversations that devolve into an angry argument or partisan bickering. To be clear, my argument is not that there is no purpose to anger, protest, and debate; these can be powerful ways to propagate change and articulate ideas. In fact, I am an avid proponent of passionate discourse, and I’ll admit that I enjoy winning and take no small amount of pleasure in dissent.

However, given our current political environment, I argue steadfastly that the best way to create meaningful change on our campus is through open conversation. While I am skeptical of conversation as a treatment for all social ills, truly empathetic discussions can establish change on a microcosmic scale. Some might argue that sexual assault and rape culture are systemic products of the patriarchy, and, therefore, cannot be unilaterally unpacked on campus in a meaningful way. Or that people who sexually assault others do so to exercise power and will continue to do so until forced to stop.

I would assert that both these argument are correct but would counter that socially reinforced norms can have a profound impact on what individuals view as permissible and acceptable. For example, Donald Trump’s comments which have caused all the scandal have been defended with the label “locker room talk.” Such a defense suggests that a fair amount of individuals either can’t tell what constitutes sexual assault or can’t tell the difference between comments that are crude and those that perpetuate rape culture.

A student body that is unable to define what constitutes sexual assault is extremely problematic when trying to prevent it from happening on campus. Thoughtful discussions can encourage individuals to consider the distinctions between the two and further understand its gravity. Conversation also destigmatizes sexual assault and can help survivors feel comfortable talking about their experiences. A competitive place like Penn is objectively a tough place to handle trauma or a mental health issue, and having these conversations takes on greater value.

This is by no means to suggest that these conversations are easy to have. Not only can they can be acutely emotional for everyone involved, but can also be a huge challenge to facilitate. Such discourse requires setting aside pride and an active choice to value both the space of the discussion and the people with whom you are having it. These are big asks, and even if you have done these things, it doesn’t always mean that you can find other participants who are willing to do so.

I know that it is unrealistic to approach every one conversation in an empathetic way all the time. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all strive to this standard. I struggle every day to be a better activist and ally to those around me. (If you were born the perfect activist, I offer you congratulations and a thick book on self-development.) All I ask is that next time we approach a conversation on campus – whether it be about sexual assault or another issue- we all try to do a little more listening and a little less arguing.


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